The first 42 games of the 2016-17 campaign are in the books for the Portland Trail Blazers. Half of a season is usually enough to get a bead on the make-up and direction of a squad. Not so in Portland. The only sure thing right now is that everyone is still trying to figure out who the Blazers are, including the guys in the locker room. Are the Blazers ahead of the curve on a rebuild or behind the 8-ball in a slowly-failing playoffs quest? Are they one trade away from contention or one injury away from disaster? Are they the team that humbled the World Champion Cleveland Cavaliers on Wednesday night or the team that put in an eyesore of an effort while losing to the much more humble Orlando Magic 115-109 this evening?
Portland had good moments in tonight’s game, just as they’ve had good moments throughout the season. They amounted to another loss. If this result was any indication of the Blazers’ response to recent success, those betting on them turning the corner might want to remember Mike McDermott’s famous quote from Rounders: If you can't spot the sucker in your first half hour at the table, then you are the sucker.
The Blazers certainly got suckered into Orlando’s wheelhouse at the outset of this game. The Magic have scoring power but it seldom amounts to much. They average only 98.8 ppg, 27th in the league. That’s not hard to understand. Their favored spots lie mostly in the mid-range: inherently lower-percentage looks. When defenses keep them out of the middle of the floor, pushing them deep and towards the edges, the “Magic” look anything but.
So what did the Blazers do? They began this game watching Orlando go Sesame Street, sinking 1... 2... 3... 4... 5... 6... 7... 8... 9... MWAAH HAH HAH! NINE IN A ROW. They didn’t miss until the 6:18 mark and their first-quarter shot chart looked like you unloaded a 12-gauge into a Kleenex at 6 inches. Everything was right down the middle of the floor, many attempts in the heart of the lane. Nikola Vucevic was the main culprit. Portland had no answer for his interior game. But they didn’t stop the Magic farther out either. When a couple of angle three-pointers went in—definitely not Orlando’s strong point—the quarter officially qualified as “not fair”.
Saying the Blazers also lacked rebounding early on isn’t quite fair. With Orlando shooting 148%, what was there to rebound? But to the extent that glass work was important, the Blazers didn’t have it.
Nor was Portland’s offense clicking. Remember those first 9 shots the Magic hit? They resulted in a 20-3 lead. The Blazers moved, cut, passed, and shot like they expected to win the game on individual offensive talent alone. They ran three-quarters speed, fired without passing. Damian Lillard broke the ice with four layups but those were short moments of reprieve in an otherwise endless nightmare. Orlando won the first period 36-23.
Note: That’s 36 points given up in one period to a team that doesn’t break 100 on average. This was not going well.
The Blazers redeemed themselves on several fronts during the second quarter. The bench rallied behind offense from Evan Turner, a couple fierce blocked shots from Meyers Leonard, plus better defense and rebounding overall. They held Orlando to 18 points while riding Turner to 26 of their own, leaving the deficit at a manageable 54-49 when the horn sounded for the half.
The third period was slated to be break-away time for the Blazers, as CJ McCollum came alive for 9 big points. Portland even got their defense in order, allowing the Magic only 5 attempts in the paint and 6 from straightaway overall...every one a miss. But Orlando did a fairly un-Orlando thing. Serge Ibaka hit a trio of three-pointers from the same angle that plagued the Blazers in the first half. His deluge, along with a number of other side-court shots, gave the Magic 28 points in the period against 29 for Portland. Technically the Blazers prospered but they made little headway. Orlando still led 82-78 after three.
McCollum would continue his roll through the fourth quarter, hitting a pair of three-pointers and a trio of shots right at the cup. This mirrored Portland’s overall attack. Only three of their shots all period came outside of 7 feet but inside the arc. This is exactly what they want to do and it worked. Behind McCollum, the Blazers scored 31.
If Portland could have kept up the defense they might have reaped the benefits of their scoring barrage. Unfortunately the Magic put the middle of the court back on blast, hitting 8 shots that would have qualified for any “Around the World” playground game plus another pair of three-pointers. The Blazers ended up defending one or two things but could never cover everything.
Portland trailed only 105-103 with 1:16 to go when they shut down Vucevic at the top of the key. As he flipped a pass to Elfrid Payton in the coffin corner, followed by an open three-point splash-down, hopes for a victory went up in smoke. The game got interesting in the final seconds due to a silly Orlando turnover and an even sillier dead ball foul, but Portland’s desperation heaves never found twine and the Magic earned the win, 115-109.
The Blazers might have captured this one had their initial approach been better. They seemed completely shocked that Nikola Vucevic could score. He’s had a down year, but since every decent center scores on the Blazers, his sudden upswing should not have been a revelation. They seemed unable to chase or bump Orlando’s guards out of position, unwilling to recover when switching or sending extra men to help. Outside of the second period, Portland’s defense was sub-standard. They allowed the Magic not one, but two 30-point quarters. Orlando shot 49% from the field and an uncharacteristic 56% from the three-point arc. This will be described as a lucky night but it revealed once more than Portland defenders intimidate nobody. Even when perimeter players closed out, Magic shooters seemed unruffled. Let’s not even talk about how comfortable Vucevic’s 30-point scoring night looked. It’s one thing not to get to the spot. (That happened plenty too.) It’s another to get to the spot and have it just not matter much.
The Blazers were able to recover from their awful start because they rebounded hard, because Turner and the bench carried them through the second period, and because the second half belonged to McCollum. Their inability to carry through will likely be attributed to “just missing shots” or “it wasn’t our night” but the Blazers weren’t working that hard for good looks either. The game started with fairly lazy iso ball and it finished with a more frantic, but still dribbler-oriented, version of the same. Again, Portland walked into this game like they felt that advantages at both guard spots and a tidal wave of scoring would be enough to win it. McCollum and Damian Lillard outscored Payton and Evan Fournier 60-27 but lack of defense and dominance in other areas rendered that considerable edge moot.
The Blazers aren’t good enough to approach games this way against any opponent. If they remembered that against the Lakers and Cavaliers earlier this week, they appeared to forget tonight. That’s a shame, because three straight wins headed out onto the road would have sounded better than a couple wins and a loss.
CJ McCollum hit 4 of 6 three-pointers tonight, making him the only Blazer to shoot above 25% from the arc. He finished with 26 on 10-21 overall with 3(!) blocked shots. Even though Lillard scored more, it felt like CJ was assuming the mantle of calming leader when the Blazers needed to right the ship in the second half.
Damian Lillard scored 34 on 12-27 shooting with 8 rebounds. He also shot 2-11 from behind the arc and managed but 3 assists. He appeared to respond to the game slipping away with, “I’m going to get us out of this.” He didn’t.
Allen Crabbe crawled back into his shell tonight, hitting 3-10 shots for 7 points. He’d be an easy scapegoat if you’re just counting raw scoring, but offense wasn’t Portland’s big problem. They shouldn’t need 17 from Crabbe to score 119 total in order to win a game.
Mason Plumlee had 5 assists and 3 blocked shots; Al-Farouq Aminu had 7 rebounds. Neither scored much and neither did much to dispel the case that the Blazers suffer when having to face legitimate big men.
Evan Turner scored 15 off the bench on 5-9 shooting. When teams have unexplained, miserable games there’s often one veteran who’s new to the franchise who refuses to suffer along with everybody else. Tonight Turner was that guy. It’s like he looked around and said, “It’s just the Magic, y’all!”
Meyers Leonard shot 1-8 though he did have those nice second-quarter blocks. Ed Davis played 16 minutes with 4 points and 4 rebounds. Pat Connaughton got 13 minutes, partially replacing injured starter Moe Harkless who is suffering a calf strain. Connaughton hit 1 of 4 shots but at least it was a three.
Links and Such
Orlando Pinstriped Post will think Nikola Vucevic is the bee’s knees now.
The Blazers now head out on an East Coast road swing, starting Monday afternoon in Washington as part of the NBA’s Martin Luther King Day schedule.
Blazer’s Edge Night 2017
Want to assist us in sending 2,000+ underprivileged Portland-area kids to a Trail Blazers game this spring? Check out Blazer’s Edge Night 2017 for information on how to get involved, and help spread the word!